A Walking Tour of Boyle Heights with El Random Hero

Sign on the Window of Espacio 1839
Sign on the window of Espacio 1839.

What started out as a casual conversation over drinks and food turned into me leading a tour of Boyle Heights for my friend’s Spanish class.

The tour gave his students, many of whom were visiting BH for the first time, the opportunity to explore the rich diversity the community has to offer.

I’ve had the privilege of calling BH my adoptive home since I was 7 years old. And, while I’ve also lived in other great cities like Compton, Watts, Inglewood, and Pico Union, I’ve always had that connection to BH, no matter how far away I might be.

Los Angeles is a city that forgets (or glosses over) its past at times, creating a disconnect and misconceptions of what truly makes a neighborhood a community.

And while, within historic neighborhoods like BH, that past is alive and well, unless you know its people, you may never get the full story.

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Walking past Self Help Graphics & Art and their history in the community.

So, while I may have technically been the guide, I was merely sharing what has been shared with me over the years. I’ve accumulated a small wealth of knowledge about the neighborhood I grew to love because others from the community have the same passion and love for it that I do.

That same passion, for better or worse, sometimes leads me to knee-jerk reactions in calling out what I perceive as gentrification and labeling any and all outsiders as “hipsters.” I’ve seen tours of Boyle Heights and have always been curious about their intentions and level of connection because the tours are almost always led by outsiders to the community. While the participants seem to genuinely want to learn more about the neighborhood, I wonder if they are getting a full picture of what once was and how it came to be what it is now.

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Looking at the temporarily-closed Self Help Graphics & Art as they undergo renovations.

Historical information on when landmarks or events took place were easy enough to find through resources like the Boyle Heights Historical Society or the Los Angeles Public Library, but few can contextualize the past with the present. During the tour, I referred to BH as the Ellis Island of the West Coast because historically, BH has always had those ties to immigrants. Whether it was Irish Immigrant Andrew Boyle, who the neighborhood was named after, or my own personal immigrant experience coming to the United States as a seven-year-old and having BH be the first community I lived in (and still do).

Only someone from the neighborhood would be able to describe the significance of the demolition and rebuilding of the Aliso Village developments — something that displaced more than two thirds of residents — and link it to the redevelopment Wyvernwood might undergo.

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Friend and fellow tour guide, Ken Montenegro, talking about the history of the Aliso Village projects in the community. Moments before this picture, Council Member Jose Huizar gave a drive by shout out to folks on the tour.

BH has seen displacement more than once, which is why passions run high when it comes to issues that are still raw in the community.

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Sharing some of my favorite eats around the neighborhood.

Even seemingly minor tips on what kind of burritos one should try at Al & Bea’s or discussions of which movies were filmed on which streets can stir up deep-seated passions.

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Caught with my eyes closed as I shared the history of Self Help Graphics & Art

For this event, I tried to one-up tours I’ve been on by having an interactive component to the tour, having participants view old pictures of landmarks through their phones as I narrated the history.

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Sharing some of the history and work HomeBoy Industries has had in the community.

I want to continue to share the community I have tons of love for, debunking any and all stereotypes out there, but be respectful of the community that’s here right now. Sharing is a mutual act that requires giving and taking, but it has to be done evenly for it to work.

 (More photos below)   

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Tour participants having some fun walking down First street
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Each landmark has its own story to tell, whether it’s the Boyle Hotel (on the right) or the numerous freeways that surround BH (Bridge in center).
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If you ain’t having fun, then you aren’t doing it right.
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The Breed Street Shul is always a must-stop location when talking about Boyle Heights’ history.

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Part of Boyle Heights’ history is literally painted on the walls
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Once known as the mural capital of the world, the importance of these works in the community can never be stressed enough
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The intersection of Cesar Chavez Ave. and Soto is always brimming with activity
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“El Corrido de Boyle Heights” is still holding strong after 30 years
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Bus load of students heading to El Mercado de Los Angeles for lunch
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The murals of Jose Luis Gonzalez adorn the walls outside of El Mercado de Los Angeles
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El Mercadito, as locals know it, is a slice of Mexico in Los Angeles
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Impromptu concert by musicians at the third floor restaurant of El Mercado


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